Review: My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights

Director: Wong Kar Wai (Fallen Angels, 2046, Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love)
Starring: Nora Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 90 min


I‘ve been waiting for a while to write this review and my wait has not been caused by my usual procrastination but by the fact that My Blueberry Nights has been a long time in coming. It was originally shown back at Cannes in 2007 and even before that we had beautiful shots from the movie that had us drooling. Unfortunately all the beauty in the world was not enough for this movie and after a poor showing at Cannes Wong Kar Wai set about re-editing it and we are finally seeing My Blueberry Nights popping up in theatres. So the question then is if the re-edit is enough to turn My Blueberry Night into a classic like In the Mood for Love or Chunking Express.

Sadly, I’m going to have to say no. My Blueberry Nights revolves around the character of Elizabeth (Norah Jones). You will notice that I do not say that the movie revolves around the beginnings of the relationship between Elizabeth and Jeremy (Jude Law) and this is why the movie falters in my opinion. The premise is that Elizabeth breaks up from her boyfriend of 10 months after finding out that he has been seeing someone else. She discovers this by questioning Jeremy at his diner. Elizabeth and Jeremy hit if off as friends and spend several nights chatting about life over blueberry pie at the Diner. Late one night after Elizabeth has fallen asleep at the diner Jeremy steals a kiss without her knowing. The next night Elizabeth doesn’t return but has headed off across the Country in order to find herself. During this time we can actually see Norah Jones grow somewhat as an actress as she becomes more comfortable.

David Strathairn My Blueberry NightsWhile traveling across the country Elizabeth takes a job at a bar where she meets Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn) an alcoholic cop who is separated from his wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Elizabeth forms a new friendship with Arnie. The role of the character Elizabeth at this point is to be a witness to the disintegrating relationship between Arnie and Sue Lynne. I don’t think I can speak highly enough about Strathairn and Weisz. Both actors bring something special to this part of the story and I was completely transfixed by the movie. Unfortunately during this time the character of Elizabeth becomes secondary and even though we should be getting a feeling of how she is growing as a person by witnessing the end of the relationship Elizabeth really just becomes a background figure.

Elizabeth later moves on to Las Vegas where she meets up and befriends Leslie (Natalie Portman). Leslie makes a deal with Elizabeth where she gets Leslie’s car or 1/3 of all the profits from gambling if Elizabeth will front her. Leslie looses the money and says she will give the car to Elizabeth once she drives her to meet Leslie’s next source of money. The two become friends on the way and Leslie gains more life lessons from this time. Portman as Leslie does a great job playing the untrusting gambler and made this section also enjoyable but once again it just felt like the character of Elizabeth was overwhelmed and didn’t really grow.

After her time with Leslie, Elizabeth returns to Jeremy and they have a touching moment. Jones at this point is much more comfortable as an actress and it shows but I just had this nagging feeling that the character of Elizabeth had not really grown as a person nor was I particularly attached to relationship between Jeremy and her. My Blueberry Nights fails where Wong Kar Wai has always succeeded. I just did not care about Elizabeth or Jeremy.

I do not want to come across to harshly on My Blueberry Nights. I really do think it is worth catching if you get the chance. The cinematography is quite beautiful. I will not say that it is at the level of Chunking Express but you can definitely tell this is a Wong Kar Wai film and that is a good thing. While I did not grow to care about Elizabeth or Jeremy I was completely transfixed by Strathairn and Weisz and would love to see with a best supporting nod next year at the Oscars. If the movie had been about Anrie and Sue, Wong Kar Wai would have another classic on is hands. Unfortunately it is not and what he ends up with is a partial success.

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Ross Miller
Guest

I saw this a few months ago at the Glasgow Film Festival and I didn't like it (check out my review at my site if you want). In my opinion Wong Kar Wai's style does NOT work in English. Films such as In The Mood For Love and 2046 he made just flow so easily and his purchase of a to-English translator has backfired.

It has some fine performances though, and obviously it looks gorgeous but it just didn't work for me.

Andrew James
Admin

Everything I've heard about this movie is mediocrity. That's really too bad considering the amazing cast and director. Still, all the images and trailers I've seen make it appear gorgeous (as you mentioned). And sometimes for me, pretty things make me overlook a lot of failures in a film. That's just me though obviously.

I look forward to seeing this soon. It hits theaters around here in a couple of weeks.

Marina Antunes
Admin

It's too bad that this isn't better. I've been looking forward to seeing it for a while, even though I know very little of Wai's work. But I'm with Andrew, eye candy is sometimes enough to save movies for me.

It's not on the horizon for a local opening for a few more weeks but I'm definitely curious to check it out.

Dave
Guest

I'm a fan of Wong Kar-Wai, and will check this film out at some point in time (I'm pretty sure it won't be playing at a theater near me, though). As a fan, I remain hopeful, though the concensus from most corners is that it's a mis-step.

Andrew James
Admin

Alright, just saw it this evening…

I think this is totally a mood film. And I happened to be in the right mood. I love the interesting style. the graininess of Mann, but with some other interesting touches as well. The "cell phone/security cam" style really struck me as cool – plus it was pretty. And as I mentioned above, I'm a sucker for pretty.

Anyone who's a fan of "Leaving Las Vegas" will probably enjoy this. I don't usually like to compare movies, but this had a Figgis feel written all over it (especially since much of it took place in Vegas and a lot of alcoholism). But even before that I got a LLV vibe. The smooth Jazz soundtrack that is enthralling and hypnotic….

Hell, I'm rambling. I'll type up an extended thoughts on this movie and give you my full perspective. Didn't LOVE this movie, but liked it quite a bit.

Kurt
Guest

Next Week for Me. I'm really looking forward to My BlueBerry Nights.

Kurt
Guest

Possibly my favourite film this year.

Ross Miller
Guest

I expected you'd like it Kurt. I know you are a big Wong Kar Wai fan and I suspected that you'd love the film because it reminds you of his other work so much. As I said (above in the first comment) it's absolutely gorgeous (one of the nicest looking films so far this year) and there's some great performances but let me ask you this, Kurt – do you really think it works in English? I felt the script to be amateurish, like it was someone writing it while thinking in phonetic English.

Kurt
Guest

First off, wkw had english mystery-writer Lawrence Block. I think all of wkw's films eschew any sort of realistic dialogue aiming for wispy romantic platitudes. However, when those bon-mots are married to the sensually soaked visuals in a world that truly can only exist inside the movies. I think it completely works.

I like when Auteurs keep going back to the same well trying something over and over again from different angles (I realize in part this is along the same lines that I Damned Iron Man). If My Blueberry Nights is familiar, that is because this type of dreamy romantic fantasy is rather archetypical. Compared to most romantic dramas however, this one achieves many levels of trancendence of "It's all been done before" material.

wkw's super-mega-exoticised America (New York, Memphis, Las Vegas) is quite exquisite, sensual, and above all: textured. How can you not love this?

rot
Guest

"How can you not love this?"

Is that my cue? 🙂

writing my thoughts tonight, I will admit the film gets somewhat better in hindsight, because the film actually feels half-thought to begin with, but you are overlooking and forgiving a lot Kurt… I return again to my argument that merely being lyrical is not enough, like Jazz there has to be a hidden focus reigning the seemingly random sounds into something profound. I did not feel anything being reigned in here, we did not arrive back at the cafe because of its natural progression, we arrived there because Kar-Wai wanted us to return. behind the sensual visuals and musical cues is a very clunky story arc.

There are two kinds of melodrama, the one that naturally triggers a response and the one that does everything in at its disposal to pre-empt a response, with music and soft-focus, etc. Blueberry is of this latter kind, it tells you what to feel in no uncertain terms.

Kurt
Guest

"we arrived there because Kar-Wai wanted us to return. behind the sensual visuals and musical cues is a very clunky story arc."

A strange thing. In my cynical view of the fantasy-romance as a dead-end and lack-of-growth makes the story construction seem fitting. I know that seems like damning the film with faint praise, but the overall arc/reach of the film does not have to jive with the execution. That is not to say that I don not like to watch this type of thing up on screen. Airy Romance and sweet-melancholy play very well in cinema. Just look at something like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Casablanca.

In a strange analogy, I have a strong dislike of smoking in general, but I love, love, love to watch it up onscreen.

Also, as a cinema of watching (us watching Norah Jones, or Norah Jones watching the Straithairn/Weitz pair or Natalie Portman), My Blueberry Nights works extraordinarily well as an introduction to his brand of aueteur cinema, and as taste for anyone to go further.

"here are two kinds of melodrama, the one that naturally triggers a response and the one that does everything in at its disposal to pre-empt a response,"

And Rot. wkw has always operated on the latter element, I'd argue that anything of the former is purely incidental.

Kurt
Guest

"like Jazz there has to be a hidden focus reigning the seemingly random sounds" I'm no expert (but a long shot) but is Norah Jones' music even considered Jazz, or a silky smooth parfait version of it. I think there is a reason why wkw had her as the only casting choice. No insult to her or her music, but 'easily digestible' was the order of the day in terms of story and plot and archetype…all of this is in service of pure mood. It's a mood that I fell deep into, apologetically, and the constant aphorisms that pass as conversation only add to the airy-ness.

rot
Guest

I am going to write a lot of eternal recurrence in WKW's cinema, but to drop one example that I noticed in the film… the introduction of Sue-Lynn and Arnie watching her, and the boyrfriend being outside is a superimposition of the exact scene of Tony Leung with the stewardess in the convenience store in Chungking Express… the difference though is this predecessor does not ham it up, does not make it loud and American, we are 'shown' the cop character and his loneliness talking to stuffed animals, there is a subtlety to the exchanges, but in Blueberry everything is Michael Bay-ed up, the inner struggle is given in dialogue, the love-hate relationship bursts into violence. Sure the same kind of wispy gloss shrouds the characters but there is a huge difference about how WKW used to 'show' the love story and how here he is 'telling' it, as if there was some thought that Americans need to be told. I do not think it is a matter of that the same kind of dialogue is being translated into an english context, and we are noticing how superficial it is, this is a case where the storytelling has visibly regressed, and the use of narration and exposition is more pronounced. Faye Wong talks about music and getting away in a throwaway manner, in Blueberry Jude Law ushers out the platitudes about opening doors and pies, and seeing things, and it is the most expositionary of WKW's romance films.

Ross Miller
Guest

I wonder if In The Mood For Love and 2046 etc were in English I might criticise them for the same reason I am this. All of the dialogue just seemed so forced to me, despite again some fine performances to accompany it, and I just was pulled out at almost every moment by it. I know that sometimes movies shouldn't be like real life, and some should be like a dream, as is this, but again it just didn't work for me.

Ross Miller
Guest

add ^^ – I just think his dialogue (yes I realize he had another writer but he ALSO co-wrote it (as well as came up with the story)) works best in a language you don't speak and thus you have to read subtitles. I guess you could make the argument that his films aren't about the dialogue but the visuals and if so then My Blueberry Nights succeeds. I just need(ed) more than that.

rot
Guest

In the Mood For Love there was very little conversation, same goes for Chungking. The love was told through body language, slo-motion, musical cues, furtive glances… the real strengths of WKW's work. yes there was occassional narration but most of the time it was poetic or inconsequential to forwarding the plot. Blueberry uses dialogue and narration in a more pronounced way, taking that same poetic inconsequential talk and using it as the means of articulating the drama of the story in a more explicit way than had been done before. I think this is way it suddenly is bothersome to some, not because of translation but because it is being expository when it makes sense only poetically. To make a strange comparison it is the same reason Lady in the Water is so strange because it transports the ludicrously poetic quality of fairy tales into a real-world situation where its now taken literally.

Kurt
Guest

"The love was told through body language, slo-motion, musical cues, furtive glances… the real strengths of WKW’s work. yes there was occasional narration but most of the time it was poetic or inconsequential to forwarding the plot."

I do not disagree here, and would agree that there is perhaps too much dialogue and voice-over, but at the same time, this element has always been inconsequential to the meaning of his work, and perhaps I've unconsciously trained myself to more or less ignore it, or at least forgive it (I fully concede the point however that emphasizing this does not add anything to the film). There is perhaps something significant to be said in the viewers approach to auteurist cinema. I think having watched a few of his films perhaps a few too many times, I've been conditioned as to what to pay attention to and what to ignore. I saw the similarities to his previous work (although "Happy Together" remains a significant hole in my viewing of his work, particularly significant because it is the other film set outside of China).

I certainly would have no issue if they dropped a lot of the platitudes, but I simply did not feel that they hampered the texture of the film. In a way, they felt like a gauzy aural filter in the same way that a soft-focus can be used, so perhaps I should be not so quite to write off the positive effect of them. This is cinema-fantasia, mood, and feeling. I felt this all added up to achieve the sensations, and it was different enough, particularly the 'exotic America' element that it felt fresh to me again.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

"To make a strange comparison it is the same reason Lady in the Water is so strange because it transports the ludicrously poetic quality of fairy tales into a real-world situation where its now taken literally."

Admittedly, in hindsight, yourself and Jay C. raising this point gives me an appreciation of Lady in the Water that I never picked up on when I watched it. If I could untangle this from the directors in-your-face ego, I think I could in fact like Lady in the Water.

rot
Guest

and I say again its not enough to just do something because it has never (or rarely) been done before, its not enough to overturn conventions for the sake of overturning them, they need to be done because there is something inherently meaningful in the journey.

I put Lady in the Water and There Will Be Blood to this same criticism. There are empty gestures in films keeping with formula (Iron man) and in those that have only in front of them an effort to overturn them. We come to this impasse often Kurt, you will give a pass to something and factor into the equation if it tries something new, and I just think it is just too easy to do something new, it is far more difficult to do something good (new or conventional).

This is the same reason I cannot stand most Godard… gimmickry aside there is nothing left.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

"and I say again its not enough to just do something because it has never (or rarely) been done before, its not enough to overturn conventions for the sake of overturning them, they need to be done because there is something inherently meaningful in the journey."

I'm not sure where meaning is to be found in romantic fantasizing. Other than to show a time-and-place in repression/restraint, what does In The Mood For Love do for you other than build an exquisite mood? I guess this is my notion of a 'mindless' movie insofar as that the film achieves all of its momentum via emotion. Expressive story-telling need not (necessarily) have an intellectual rigour to it. It exists in a different place.

I'm not sure if all of that came out right. I'm not advocating the dumbing down of film for pure eye candy, although I do think there is a special place for emotion to rule over intellectual. I think wkw has always existed in that place.

rot
Guest

my last comment was not in reference to Blueberry but Lady in the Water… there is nothing new in Blueberry but I do not think of that as a hinderance or a plus to it… and like you said, knowing the auteur element is one's 'in' to the filmic world… but I think it is a misstep in just that self-contained universe WKW made.

rot
Guest

If anything I'm saying Blueberry isn't wkw enough. He has tried something new with the narration and that failed (not because its new, but because it takes the poetic too literally where once body language, slo-motion, musical cues, furtive glances did most if not all of the legwork.

rot
Guest

I mean narration AND dialogue

Kurt
Guest

Amusing: From Jim Emerson over at Scanners-Blog: That's how she learns about the blueberry pie. It seems that, every night, people eat most or all of the other sugary delicacies, but nobody ever orders the blueberry. This is as inexplicable as Jeremy's motivation for continuing to offer it. Elizabeth begins to stop by late at night, after closing, to gorge on the blueberry pie, even though each slice must contain at least 2,046 calories. Like fallen angels, she and Jeremy talk about their lonely descent from cupid's paradise. For a while they are happy together, but she is not yet in the mood for love, so one night she vanishes.

Besides playing spot the wkw titles, I guess it is round about way of saying that this film is re-hash. In this case I do not see it as a bad thing, wkw is making the transition to English, and his sweet slice-of-fantasy works on that level.

rot
Guest

Ok here is my review (3/5 stars… I see where you are coming from Kurt, its tempting to give in to it):

As Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights fades to black, a bluesy chorus purrs: “It has all been done before”. Clearly there is a higher significance to the lyric, in the way that it alludes to the recurrence of not merely prevailing themes of alienation and longing in Kar-Wai’s romantic canon, but of particular scenes and scenarios, snippets of dialogue, even musical cues, finely ground and revisited in a way that weighs heavily upon those familiar with the director’s oeuvre. We know it has all been done before and yet we keep coming back and allowing ourselves to play out the self-configured archetypes of this – if not auteur – then at least incestuous cinema. I appreciate My Blueberry Nights on this meta-level as one section of a larger tableau where pronounced story elements fix upon certain key events (perhaps of a biographical nature) that characters return to in earnest pantomime.

To speak of this film is to speak of its interrelations to its predecessors. Elizabeth (Norah Jones) and Jeremy (Jude Law) are the metaphoric reincarnation of any number of lovers in Kar-Wai’s universe, their actions, and the actions of the characters that are met along the way all evoke a déjà-vu that is entirely intentional. When a Norah Jones track is played twice in quick repetition we are reminded of California Dreamin’ in Chungking Express, When Elizabeth asks Jeremy to hold onto the key of a past lover we are reminded of cop 633 asking the same of Faye, when Arnie (yet another cop) watches his adulterous wife Sue-Lynn enter the bar it is a virtual superimposition of the same scene in Chungking, as cop 633 and the stewardess awkwardly say their goodbyes in the convenience store, the new beau waiting outside. Kar-Wai’s last film, 2046, was even more obviously a mash-up of material laid out in Chungking Express, In The Mood for Love, The Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, and with this history in mind and with My Blueberry Nights own persistent recurrences, such an inclusion ceases to be anything like an Easter egg for the cinephiles, as far as I am concerned, it IS the movie.

Any ability for this film to operate smoothly without foreknowledge of this atmosphere of recurrence, which is to say any ability for this film to be the break-out American debut of the director’s work, is stymied by this hermetic preoccupation. As a garden variety love story of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, the film pays only lip-service, and despite the outward façade of this kind of film with familiar faces like Jude Law and Natalie Portman, something mercurial waits in the wings, the lucid filmmaking that is Kar-Wai’s signature with slo-mo dissolves and smudgy rain-soaked visuals in cahoots with deceptively random musical cues and poetic bursts of narration, has nothing to do with conventional storytelling.

The critical backlash to My Blueberry Nights has been unrelenting, and some people place the blame on its move to English-speaking America, thus relinquishing one of the perceived enjoyment factors for Anglophones of Kar-Wai’s work, namely its exoticism. Dialogue and narration, which once had the filter of subtitles, now rings false and flowery when heard, cheapening all sense of genuine drama; so the argument goes. To me the fault lies elsewhere, not in its lack of exoticism or any defect of translation, but rather in a subtle yet noticeable shift in storytelling technique. Where previously Kar-Wai was satisfied to ‘show’ character longing and attraction, My Blueberry Nights time and again resorts to ‘telling’ us these emotions through expository dialogue and narration. Perhaps the first-time screenplay collaboration with Lawrence Block has something to do with this change for the worst to Kar-Wai’s successful formula, or perhaps there was a conscious decision by all involved that some concessions would need to be made to appeal to American audiences – the visual qualities of Kar-Wai’s signature could remain but only with a ‘telling’ device of intermittent narration. Chungking’s Faye Wong flippantly discusses music and visiting America, Blueberry’s Jeremy speaks of keys opening metaphorical doors, the blueberry pie being emblematic for the unloved, the unpaid bill as proof of life (unending heavy-handed platitudes) In Kar-Wai’s prior works, love was conveyed through body language, slo-motion visuals, musical cues, furtive glances… the real strengths of his style. Yes there was occasional narration but most of the time it was poetic or inconsequential to forwarding the plot. Blueberry, on the otherhand, uses dialogue and narration in a more pronounced way, taking that same poetic inconsequential talk and using it as the means of articulating the drama of the story explicitly. To make a perhaps strange comparison it is like what happened to M Night Shymalan’s Lady in the Water, a film that transported the ludicrously poetic quality of fairy tales into a real-world situation, made uncomfortable due to it being taken literally. A similar awkwardness pervades Blueberry by this shift in narration and dialogue, wrestling the poetry into some literal exposition function it cannot adequately fulfill. All the same parts of the formula Kar-Wai has used remain in this film, but with this subtle shift the dream world is punctured and met with cries of displeasure. If anything, this film shows just how delicate a balance Kar-Wai has kept up until now.

One of my problems with the film was that I felt 2046 was a perfect acceleration and summation of this eternal recurrence experiment of storytelling and that where better to carry the story then to some distant albeit imaginary future society where the same recurrence appears to go unending. It seems strangely terrestrial and uninspired to return again to the same conventions laid out in his past work, to tell a smaller derivative story that has only the change in location to make it distinct. I also found very little life to the characters, they felt like dolls rearranged to convey basic human emotions. At one point both Jeremy and Elizabeth suffer from nose bleeds from two separate incidents, and I do not grasp what is supposed to be conveyed by this overt depiction of coincidence: are they star-crossed lovers, and if so what exactly is supposed to make me care about them besides the well-worn convenience that both have loved and lost and can share that thread of understanding?

Of course the film looks wet and electric and gorgeous, and if you turn your mind off and let it all wash over you, time will pass effortlessly. Occasionally something inspired emerges, such as the stellar performance of Natalie Portman as a cocky Texan, or Norah Jones’ face with the power to transfix with an extended gaze, and the dizzy heights of the music can make one swoon in and out but it all seems detuned, scraps of a message breaking out of the static. The film goes one way, I go another. I would have preferred the story stayed minimal, fixed on the writing of postcards, the cinematic challenge of telling a love story through the written word – a challenge Kar-Wai is surely suited for. Or when the story suddenly dips into a casino I wanted the film to stay there and eek out an Edward Hopper-like rumination on alienation and isolation among the glittery electric lights and blips and beeps of that nether-region of civilization. Instead the story careens forward, aimless in its pursuit of some quaint reunion of souls, using postcards and casinos as collage material towards its ultimately unsatisfying end. While wondrous things occasionally flow within it, I feel its life force is best appreciated elsewhere in the works that this film so unduly saps.

Kurt
Guest

Beautifully articulated rot.

I see all these flaws, and acknowledge that they should tangibly interfere with the film on an intellectual level. But that is certainly never the aim of the film; and when a movie has me in the sweet place, they are all forgivable. I play this game with myself telling that the platitudes and 'obvious symbols – keys, bar tabs, uneaten blueberry pie' a shorthand, I'd be curious if wkw were to simply take them away or pare them back, but as they stand they are fairly unobtrusive white-noise to the soundtrack and visuals. The characters have to say something I suppose (well, with the exception of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE).

The analogy of static is apt, in the sense that My Blueberry Nights does feel like a lonely person idly fondling a radio dial on an old car while driving along Route 66 at 2am. The road movie feels less like a lazy device, and more as a dreamy reverie. The whole film is a reverie actually designed to put the brain in a torpor-ous state. This works precisely because it is ludicrously sweet, not unlike the super-duper close-ups of ice-cream melting and merging with sweet berry filling.

rot
Guest

I'm liking it more and more against my better judgment 🙂 What ca I say, I am a sucker for WKW.

Kurt
Guest

me too. A sucker in the way that wkw can lay it down early (explicitly in song lyrics) that not much new is on offer, that he is dusting off a lot of familiar devices and elements, and yet, win me over again.

I'm hoping that this film expands a little closer to me so I can catch it again in the cinema. I'm definitely picking up the DVD to add to my collection, and while I'm at it, I should pick up and watch HAPPY TOGETHER.

Shannon the Movie Mo
Guest

I.loved.this.film 🙂

rot
Guest

Saw it again with every intention of loving it but I have to say the exposition was all the more grating the second time around. The rhythm of the film is also atrocious, the 'mood' becomes a faint memory knee-deep into many of the monologues of the film, and then stumbles back to pace thereafter. This film is insanely talky, like nothing can be shown without some kind of verbalization of it, and Norah's summing-up narrations of her life lessons sounds exactly like the sort of trite conclusions that Sarah Jessica Parker's character on Sex and the City comes up with. This is a hybrid work that is only half traditional wkw, and I can still love the half wkw in it, but I cannot deny the remaining impostor.

wkw marathon here I come.

Kurt
Guest

I'm with you on the wkw marathon. If only to catch up on Happy Together and As Tears Go By. Chungking is a regular at our place, as is In The Mood For Love.

I'm really hoping that the Ashes of Time redux comes out on DVD sooner than later. It's getting its 'premiere' at Cannes next week.

wpDiscuz